The Fallen Sparrow

Wartime propaganda movies can be a bit of a mixed bag when viewed with modern eyes, the passage time allowing them to be considered more objectively as pieces of cinema. Some fare very poorly, with weak, stereotypical characterization tending to be the principal fault. On the other hand, there are others which hold up better, which use a little more subtlety and whose stories are more engrossing. The Fallen Sparrow (1943) is one of the stronger efforts, thanks largely to its star and cinematographer. However, it’s not a movie without its faults, most of which stem from an inability to fit comfortably into any one category: it’s a spy thriller with an antifascist message, a film noir in visual terms, and a psychological melodrama. I think it’s the propaganda aspect that lets it down the most though, not because it’s especially dated but more because the motivation of the villains is hard to swallow.

John McKittrick (John Garfield) is a war veteran, not of WWII but the Spanish Civil War. A policeman’s son, he fought on the Loyalist side, was captured and held prisoner long after the conflict had ended. We first see him on a train bound for his native New York. There’s a nervy urgency about the man, and a glimpse at a scrap of newspaper tells us that he’s heading home as a result of an apparently accidental death. A boyhood friend took a dive from a high-rise apartment, and it’s soon made clear that McKittrick is unsatisfied with the official version of events.So far the plot has all the hallmarks of a standard mystery thriller, but it’s McKittrick’s back story that gives it an added twist. During his incarceration in Spain McKittrick was a victim of prolonged sessions of torture, and he only escaped due to the intervention of his recently deceased friend. The effect of this is twofold – McKittrick suspects that the death was no accident and was actually linked to events in Spain; additionally, those years in the dungeons suffering at the hands of faceless tormentors have left him in a psychologically fragile state. With the police keen to give him the brush off, McKittrick sets about looking into the circumstances of the death himself. This leads him into the slightly surreal world of the refugee community – where exiled aristocrats keep company with night club musicians and the granddaughter of a prince (Maureen O’Hara) sells hats to society matrons for a living. Within this odd milieu lurks the threat of a fascist cell and its preoccupation with the recovery of one of the more unusual spoils of war. Teetering on the brink of sanity, McKittrick weaves his way through this group of blue bloods, spies and assorted lackeys in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery and exorcise his personal demons.

Richard Wallace isn’t a director i can say I’m all that familiar with. He’s probably best know for taking charge of Sinbad, the Sailor with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, but he also made a moderately good noir, Framed, with Glenn Ford. Both Framed and The Fallen Sparrow show that Wallace had some talent for the dark cinema, and this movie in particular features a few very nice touches. I guess the fact that Nicholas Musuraca, who photographed some of the most visually interesting film noirs, was behind the camera helped a lot, and the pair conjure up a handful of scenes whose atmosphere wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie. There are plenty of impenetrable shadows that whisper menace, and architectural features like pillars and balustrades are used to pin the hapless and haunted McKittrick in place. The overall effect is to heighten the sense that the hero of the movie is still trapped by the ghosts and monsters of his past, and he frequently seems to be as much the prey of the dark forces crowding around him as the hunter he’s trying to be.

The film very much belongs to John Garfield, although there’s good support from Maureen O’Hara and Walter Slezak. I think Garfield is one of the most tragic figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age – a man of immense talent and raw power doomed by poor health and the political climate of the times. He always came across to me as the tough guy with the soft center, possessed of a streetwise cockiness and vulnerability that, while an elusive quality, was a key ingredient of the finest noir protagonists. His career lasted only thirteen years and by 1952 he was dead, aged just 39. He suffered from a heart condition and it’s highly likely that his hounding by HUAC during the McCarthyite Red Scare of the late 40s and 50s was a contributory factor in his early demise. However, in the short time he graced the screen with his presence, Garfield made some terrific and memorable movies, especially noir pictures. Body and Soul, Force of Evil and The Breaking Point are all genuine classics as far as I’m concerned, and even his lesser works like The Fallen Sparrow show how good he could be. I think the most interesting thing about this movie isn’t really the plot, instead it’s Garfield’s portrayal of a severely damaged individual, a psychologically shattered man clinging to the remnants of his sanity. His terror, as the nights draw in and the shadows lengthen, is palpable. The viewer really gets to share in his dread, boxed up in his apartment and sweating despite the snow falling outside, as the dragging footsteps of the limping man of his nightmare past echo in his mind. Walter Slezak brought a creeping menace to many roles, not least Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, and his turn as a crippled intellectual fascinated by man’s cruelty to man is well realized. The early scene where he softly lectures a drawing-room of stuffy society types on the delicacies of the torturer’s art, as Garfield stands awkward and withdrawn before him, is a chilling moment. Maureen O’Hara is only one of three women linked to the mystery – the others being Patricia Morison and Martha O’Driscoll – but she gets the meatier and more significant role. She’s not an actress that you would automatically associate with film noir but does fine as a possibly duplicitous woman with divided loyalties.

The Fallen Sparrow was an RKO production and is now widely available in DVD in Spain, Italy, France and the US (via the Warner Archive). I have the UK edition of the film released by Odeon and it’s a reasonable transfer. The image is fairly sharp and has good contrast levels to show off Musuraca’s photography. However, it has to be said the print is quite dirty, with plenty of speckles and instances of minor damage. The disc is completely free of extras, just the option to play the movie or select a scene. The movie is adapted from a book by Dorothy B Hughes and while it’s not up to the standards of the best versions of her stories – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – I reckon it’s still a movie that most fans of film noir would want to see. I feel that aspects of the plot, derived from the overdone combination of propaganda, espionage and melodrama, do hurt it. Having said that, Garfield’s intense performance and Musuraca’s beautiful, atmospheric photography raise the quality quite a few notches. All in all, it’s an enjoyable if not wholly successful film.

24 thoughts on “The Fallen Sparrow

  1. Must agree that Garfield gives a great performance in this as a man “teetering on the brink of sanity”, as you say – I remember there are some good moments of voiceover, and always remember the scene at the end where a muscle in his face starts to twitch and wonder how on earth he did it. I agree with you that the plot and in particular the motives of the villains don’t quite hang together, but definitely worth seeing for Garfield. By the way I heard the other day that there is a blogathon about him coming up if you are interested – I’m going to take part and write about ‘He Ran All the Way’:


    • Generally, I think Garfield was a wonderful actor Judy. However, noir seemed to be his forte and the more pressured the character the better – it seemed to draw on his strengths. I think if the plot and motivations had been stronger then this movie could have been slugging it out for position with some of the better noirs.
      And thanks for the link – I’ll give that some thought.


  2. A very interesting review. I don’t recall that I’ve ever seen this film. In fact, I hadn’t even realised that Odeon had released it…but now that you’ve drawn my attention to it, I’ll be ordering it shortly. Both Garfield and O’Hara are both strong screen presences so this one sounds good to me. Thanks Colin.


    • You’re welcome Dafydd. Odeon seem to sneak out a lot of stuff and it’s easy to miss what has or hasn’t been released. Garfield, O’Hara and Slezak are the chief selling points here – along with the general look of the whole thing – so don’t expect as much from the general plot.


  3. I guess like many of us I was introduced to Garfield via The Postman Always Rings Twice, indeed the DVD I own carries a TCM documentary about him – clearly a brilliant actor and tragic figure once the Blacklist hit.

    My personal sign of good acting is someone who can relate information just by talking about it, rather than using voiceover and flashbacks. In The Fallen Sparrow, his descriptions of the time he was tortured are suitably harrowing, and it’s great that the camera just follows him as he talks it through, rather than giving us something more visual. He completely carries the picture, elevating it beyond the pedestrian. Great write-up of a forgotten minor gem, Colin.


    • Thanks Mike. I agree that Garfield’s description to his friend of the horrors of the Spanish prison works much better with just his words and the intensity that overtakes his features as he talks. Any visuals at that point would likely have lessened the power of the scene – the fact it remains unseen, and communicated to us just by Garfield’s haunting narration makes it easier to comprehend his near paralysis with fear whenever he hears those ominous footsteps.

      I have that same DVD of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I agree the documentary on Garfield is a very nice extra.


  4. Thanks very much for this one Colin – This is a film I really want to see again as I have strong memories of the chiaro scuro atmosphere and Garfield’s presence but not much else. Along with Mike I would agree that the documentary (ported in the new Blu-ray release of POSTMAN) I would also recommend the documentary on his life as being well above average- one aspect that is rarely commented on is how striking his voice was and well it was used, especially in FORCE OF EVIL. Weirdly I think the first film i ever saw him was one of his least characteristic, the fantasy BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, but he was rarely less than excellent in his movies, even some of the duff programmers he was pushed into by Warners early in his career.


    • Sergio, between yourself and Mike you’ve persuaded me to give the documentary and The Postman Always Rings Twice another spin – it’s been ages since I watched them.

      Funny you should mention Between Two Worlds. It’s a movie I’ve only ever seen once, I think it was a Saturday afternoon screening on Channel 4 donkeys years ago, but it made quite an impression on me at the time. It had a great dreamy atmosphere as far as I recall and I’d love to see it again some day.


      • I probably saw the same screening and the fantastic score by Erich Korngold is more than just the icing on the cake. Conversely, one of the reasons I definitely need to see SPARROW is that I have pretty much managed to forget Maureen O’Hara’s role and I never thought I could forget that smashing actress (93 this year and still going strong apparently).


        • O’Hara has a very interesting role I think and she adds quite a lot to the movie. I guess the fact that one doesn’t normally think of her as a noir performer might be part of the reason she slipped your mind.

          I just had a look and I see that Between Two Worlds is available via the Archive – disappointing, but I suppose it increases the chances of it turning up somewhere in Europe at some stage.


  5. I enjoyed the perceptiveness of your opening remarks in the first paragraph and agree entirely. A film is “of its time” – in technology, immediacy, and style, and should be viewed as such, whilst not ignoring its cinematic capabilities or otherwise.

    Apparently John Garfield’s first love was the theatre, and reportedly remarked, “Screen acting is my business but I get my kicks from Broadway”. Nevertheless, he will be remembered primarily for his appearances in the film-noir movies you have listed, as well as other successful films such as “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Pride of the Marines”, “Humoresque” and “Gentleman’s Agreement”.


    • Cheers Rod. I think you have to bear in mind the context in which any film was made, especially as the distance between us and the production date lengthens.

      Humoresque – now you’ve also managed to bring up yet another movie with Garfield that I haven’t seen in over twenty years. In fact, I don’t even think I have a DVD even though I know it’s been released.


  6. I used to like Garfield a lot. Then I noticed he played basically the same character in every movie, with varying degrees of neurosis. This is one of his best. Too bad his heart was so bad, he might have worked on stage as many blacklisted actors did and re-emerged in movies/TV as a fantastic character actor. But he died without the opportunity.


    • Hi Muriel. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Garfield played the same character repeatedly, but I can see where you’re coming from. I think there are fairly significant differences between say his roles in The Sea Wolf, The Fallen Sparrow, The Breaking Point and He Ran All the Way. Having said that, I can see how, in his noir pictures in particular, there is a certain similarity apparent. Personally, I’d put that down to Garfield’s style of acting and the parts he was drawn to or offered – these roles drew on his typical strengths and so some parallels will naturally become evident.
      I guess this is an issue that pertains to pretty much every major star – once they achieve success as a particular type, then the tendency is to capitalize on that success and they or their agents/studios gravitate towards parts that are likely to work for them. Just as an example, Bogart tended to be cast as a certain “type” after his success in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.
      As I see it, the majority of actors went through the greatest experimentation either early in their careers, when the studios were casting around to find the roles that fit them best, or later on, after they had established their screen persona.

      And yes, had Garfield not passed away so young, he might well have done more work in the theater. Given the political situation of the time, I guess his other alternative, had he wanted to continue as a cinematic lead, would have been a move to the UK or elsewhere.


  7. Very nice tribute to many of the special qualities that Garfield brought to the screen, Colin! It’s been years since I’ve seen THE FALLEN SPARROW, and will look into that Warner Archive disc. Garfield is in some ways a forgotten actor, dying young but not young enough to become the sort of pop culture icon that James Dean did, though he had a similar nervous energy and edgy persona. Agreed also about the wonderful Slezak…one of my favorite performances by him is in the strange but likeable PEOPLE WILL TALK, where he’s cast against type as Cary Grant’s loyal, likeable best friend.


    • Thanks Jeff. The comparison with Dean is an interesting one – they were, as you say, both edgy performers but Garfield also had the misfortune of passing a few years before the cult of youth seemed to kick in properly.

      I actually have a copy of People Will Talk, but it’s yet another title I haven’t gotten round to watching yet!


  8. Hope you enjoy PEOPLE WILL TALK,Colin. I like it a lot and agree it shows what a talented actor Walter Slezak was.And Finlay Currie is wonderful too.
    Finally got round to watching FALLEN SPARROW and your review is such a good analysis.
    It was Garfield’s film and he did so well . I liked the fast pace,never a moment wasted.
    Although I’ve always been a Maureen O’Hara fan, I actually preferred the other two actresses, Martha O’Driscoll and especially Patricia Morison. Such a shame Patricia’s film career didn’t develop.
    Maureen’s character seemed a bit cold to me.
    One aspect which didn’t ring true for me was Garfield’s easy access to the New York high society. The character’s background didn’t seem to tie in at all with the rich friends he had.
    John Miljan, as the police inspector always gives a solid performance.


    • Still haven’t gotten round to taking People Will Talk down off the shelf!

      Good to hear you enjoyed The Fallen Sparrow. And I think those are two valid points you make – O’Hara does have the pivotal female role in the movie, but there is a kind of remoteness about her. It makes sense though in relation to her apparently conflicted loyalties, and the way everything wraps up in the end.
      I did wonder about Garfield’s social circle too. He was, after all, the son of a cop yet seemed comfortable and welcome among the upper crust. Perhaps there was some back story there that wasn’t fully explained?


  9. Haven’t seen this one in quite awhile, maybe time to revisit it soon. Pride Of The Marines will always be Garfield’s best movie to me.


  10. Saw it once and it did not grab me at all. I found it rather disjointed story wise. I might take it in again sometime in the future.


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